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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Bee Balm buzz at Garfield Conservatory's Green and Growing Fair

Cassandra West

Bee balm is Chicago seed of the year

We met Mr. Brown Thumb (shy guy wouldn’t let us take his photo) and many other urban gardeners and gardening enthusiasts at Saturday’s Green & Growing Fair at Garfield Park Conservatory. More evidence, we see, that urban agriculture’s roots are getting deeper.

You don’t hear the word wholesome much these days, but that’s the best word to describe the vibe at the fair. What’s more wholesome than people coming together to learn and share the goodness of soil, sun and the work of human hands? From kids to grandparents, everyone found something to indulge his or her green and growing interests.

We saw lots of kids poking their fingers in rich, brown dirt--or as gardeners call it, soil. Several urban farming enterprises--Grand Street Gardens, Growing Home, Inc., Nichols Farm & Orchard-- were on hand selling fresh, locally grown produce. Scattered throughout the conservatory were demonstration stations on composting, beekeeping, tool sharpening and making your own biodegradable plant pots.

The greenest of green came out, we think, to get a packet of the Seed of the Year, chosen in an annual online contest. The winning flower or vegetable ends up being the focus of a season-long celebration. One Seed Chicago, an urban greening project in partnership with NeighborSpace and GreeNet, sponsors the contest.

And the winner is…Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), a native perennial flower of Illinois that blooms in mid-summer with slender and long-tapering leaves. Bee balm—also called “Oswego Tea,” wild bergamot or horsemint—is the natural source of the antiseptic thymol, the primary active ingredient in many mouthwashes. You can get tips on growing bee balm at

Three employees of Windy City HarvestIn the fair’s marketplace, we met vendors and exhibitors from around the region, some selling their products or produce, others stocked with informational handouts.

We chatted with a high-energy and friendly crew from the Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest, an organic vegetable and plant production enterprise that provides instruction in sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture. They were selling chard, collards, kale, mixed salad greens and super fresh and fragrant green onions.

natural cleaning and growing products

We talked with Beth and Jonas Phillips of Green Generations about their line of natural cleaning and agricultural products for a variety of applications. They told us their products are free of harmful toxins or synthetic compounds and are 100% natural and safe for the environment as well as the people who use them.

We got a cilantro seedling from Robin Schirmer of Tomato Mountain Organic Farm, which has a CSA that delivers certified organic produce to Chicago, suburban Cook and collar counties. Deliveries start June 1.

Seneca Kern, co-founder of We Farm America, was digging deep into his knowledge base, giving on-the-spot instructions on setting up back yard vegetable plots. For one interested couple, he sketched a layout on the back of a business card.We Farm America

Jennifer Borchardt of Harvest Moon Farms, a Wisconsin-based organic heirloom vegetable grower, told us about their Farm to School program, in which they visit schools and give students an introduction to farming. Jennifer and her husband, Bob, are featured in an April 25 Chicago Tribune story on the expanding community supported agriculture movement.

Of course, there were many more vendors and exhibitors we just didn’t have time to meet. But, be assured, the Chicagoland farming community is green—and growing.